On April 19 last year, the curtains at Tulane’s Dixon Hall slid open to reveal the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the midst of the opening strains of “Bourbon Street Parade.” The stage was mocked up to resemble Preservation Hall; a projection screen hung overhead.
The occasion was the premiere performance of Song for My Fathers, a stage show adapted from Tom Sancton’s 2006 memoir of the same name. Set in the 1960s, the book tells the story of a middle-class white boy’s apprenticeship at the feet of some of New Orleans’ most famous black jazzmen. Preservation Hall is a constant refrain in the book, a focal point in the musical world Sancton describes, and the backdrop of many key scenes. It was there, one evening in the spring of 1962, that he first heard George Lewis play the clarinet. “[He] was my first inspiration, my teacher, my idol,” Sancton says.
Song for My Fathers will return for five nights this May (the 13th, 14th, 15th, 21st and 22nd) at Le Chat Noir. “Dixon Hall holds 1,000 people and we just about filled it,” says Sancton. “I think the Chat Noir holds 150. It’s a smaller stage, smaller house; it’s more intimate.”
Re-staging the show has been a goal for Sancton ever since the original performance, but it took a year for everything to fall into place. The performance will coincide with the Hall’s 50th anniversary. “It’s one of the ways of celebrating the Hall’s history,” he says.
The performance dramatizes his memoir through the use of archival photos and video, projected behind him as he speaks. The audience watches a montage of photos taken from ’60s second lines while he describes his early days as a marching band clarinetist, or listens to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band perform tunes mentioned in the text. Sancton tells a story about Harold Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band; the group had been hired for a funeral procession, but the widow didn’t want to pay full price. So Dejan declared that she’d be getting a “two-block funeral”. As the procession marched on without them, the Olympia struck up “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.” As Sancton recounts the story, the tune is taken up by the band onstage.
At one point, Sancton recalls his very first clarinet lesson with George Lewis. As he speaks, the scene is dramatized behind him in pantomime. When I reported on the original “Songs” production last April, Sancton was in the process of recruiting a young clarinetist to perform in the scene. As an amateur player with a passing resemblance to photos of young Tommy, I ended up in the show. Tom taught me “Corrine, Corrina,” the first tune he ever learned from Lewis. In the lesson scene, Lewis teaches Sancton that song, phrase by phrase, call and response.
In March, Sancton and the band put on a miniature version of the show in Minneapolis. “I was really curious if it was going to work outside of New Orleans,” says Ron Rona, the show’s director, better known as Ronnie Numbers in the New Orleans Bingo! Show. “Tommy did a terrific job; that really iced it for me.”
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band will be on tour in May, and so Sancton has had to assemble a new group. This time, the role of George Lewis will be filled by Joe Torregano. “What I wanted was to get people who were good representatives of the style and the culture that I talk about in Song for My Fathers,” he says. “People with links to Preservation Hall, or links to the earlier musicians.” The group will include Ronell Johnson, Lars Edegran, Frank Oxley and Gregg Stafford, musicians with strong allegiances to the Hall. “Gregg would second Kid Thomas when Kid Thomas got very old,” Sancton recalls.
Five years have passed since Sancton’s memoir was first published. “My wife always asks me, why do you keep going over this story?” he says. While he’s been involved in other projects (including a new record with Lars Edegran titled City of a Million Dreams) Sancton continues to return to the story of his childhood: “It’s a story that bears telling again and again in ways that are deeper than all the clichés we have about New Orleans. The tourist image of happy Dixieland jazz musicians sitting on the levee—I don’t like that at all. I think the story we tell is deeper, broader, more human, more meaningful than the image people have about jazz. I won’t stop telling this story, as long as people want to hear it.”